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How Retouching Made Me A Better Photographer

I rarely write in first person but because this is a topic I feel very strongly about, I want to tell you about my personal experience. When I was reminiscing with my wife about the one thing that changed my photography, it was the day I saw the light. Literally. The only way I was able to conceptually grasp light and the way it works was because I started retouching. There is no way to deny it, as I mastered retouching my photography was taken to the next level.

The purpose of this article is not to inform on the importance of actually retouching an image. Rather, retouching can lead to a greater awareness of what makes a portrait good and what makes it, well, not so good. By becoming cognizant of what constitutes as a quality image, it becomes possible to become a better judge out in the field on a portrait session.

Dodging and Burning is a fascinating technique. Personally, after spending hours and hours of watching videos on YouTube and practicing on my images for even longer, I realized that there is no possible way to fix bad lighting (harsh, blown lighting) in post-processing.  As such, the next time I was on a shoot I became hyper aware of soft lighting. When it came to selecting and editing the photos, I instantly noticed the images that had good lighting and the portraits that were poorly lit. For more information regarding good light check out this link: What Your Mom Never Taught You About Natural Light

After a few months of looking for soft light, I noticed that things still didn’t look right despite the soft light I had. This is when I googled where to dodge and burn. I learned then that Dodging & Burning is similar to what makeup artists do when trying to contour the face. When you light a person whether it's natural or artificial light, you must make sure the light is hitting specific areas on the face. A Makeup Tip I wish Someone Had Told Me When I Started Photography

With time, as I sat in front of me screen with Photoshop running, I analyzed portraits and it opened mind to new things constantly. One of the coolest experiences I had was when I studied the human eye. It truly is fascinating and after spending years retouching it, I finally learned how light travels through the iris. It made me conscious on how to make eyes pop when shooting. In this article I discuss the human eye. Did you know the pupil enlarges in the dark and becomes small in brighter locations, exposing more color?  I now ask my models to stare at the sun or a bright light right before I take a few pictures. This makes the pupils small and the iris bigger making the eyes look brighter and colorful.

I took the image below for a jewelry line in a studio last week. By no means am I a beauty photographer and I rarely use strobes. Despite my lack of knowledge for artifical light, I was able to apply my knowledge from retouching to setting up my lights and modifiers in the correct position. 

As you can see the purpose of this article was not to convince you to become a retoucher or to edit your images. But it’s important to remember that retouching can and will open up your eyes to things you can use while on a photoshoot. The more awareness you have, the better the images.


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Paulo Macedo's picture

Awesome, i've been following your work for a long time and i couldn't agree more! I moved to my city capital like last week, expecting some chalanges and to become what i've always wanted to be, i used to shot simple, like, develop the raw and here we go, but retouching helped a lot!
April - Natural Light on 500px looks awesome!

Usman Dawood's picture

Hey Dani, maybe I'm not searching hard enough but do you have any in depth tutorials about how you edit available or plans to make one please?

Dennis Huang's picture

I would not ask a model to stare at the sun or bright light.
I can understand a person wanting more iris to be seen on the photo. If I wanted to do that, I would use Photoshop.

John Ohle's picture

I have to say that I love your work, however I also would not ask the subject to look into the sun. If we like somebody that we look at, the pupil dilates. So a larger pupil in a portrait makes the brain think that the subject likes us, and so we prefer that portrait. Right, I am now off to try out your dodge and burn technique.


Mark Smith's picture

Great article Dani. I like you wrutting wheather it's in first person or not. Fabulous creativity.

David Parish's picture

Great article! Loved the wisdom spread here! I don't think Dani was advocating directly staring at the sun for long periods of time, I think he means more turning toward the light source or tilting the head toward the light to get the catch lights.

Keep spreading the gospel Dani, you are making us all get better!

Amanda Coplans's picture

Another great piece Dani. So generous of you to share so much of your knowledge. Don't suppose you have a pull back or diagram of your jewellery shoot set up that you could share, because the lighting is beautiful.

Troy D. Davidson's picture

Preach! I LIVE this experience, since taking a class from Dani. Since my retouching class, and better understanding the hows and whys of dodge and burn, I asked myself...hmmmm...wouldn't I save myself more time, if I got most of this in-camera with lighting? The pros preach this all the time. But...what about in limited lighting situations....hmmm? Retouching has even opened my eyes to making the most of available light. So happy to hear this so well articulated! Thanks Dani!

Christian Berens's picture

Great article! I love seeing your images and better yet, an explanation to how/why you do what you do! Thank you!!

Zach Ashcraft's picture

You are writing the most consistently helpful articles on shooting portraits. Really seeing my portrait work improve the more I read these and study your work - Thank you!

Zenza Rino's picture

dani, as an enthusiast, I really appreciate your photography and as a follower I have learned many things from you. However, I also would like to say that sometimes as a cons. of PP your models look plastic (first photo in this case) or battered. I will be following your articles and am sure that I will be enjoying , so please think my comment as a friendly critique.

Andria wilson's picture

Is retouching something that can be done when all I do is pretty much shoot young children?

Danny Villamar's picture

Thanks for the knowledge Dani, you truly inspire me man.

Nick West's picture

Really nice photography Dani, although I have to say the skin looks a little plastic on the colour images, your B&W image looks great though, the texture has been retained and very natural!

Anonymous's picture

all traces of humanity removed from their faces. The one of the child looks particularly freaky.

Andrew Von Haden's picture

Dani, you are doing some truly great work and I think your articles are the ones that I have gotten the most out of here on Fstoppers.

Something I hope that you will consider doing in the future is an editing video. I would love to see you analyze a shot live, show where to highlight it and why, and then get to see the process of how you get there.

Karthik Thorali's picture

Thanks for this article Dani. I have read through other articles which have linked, and apply techniques wherever I can.
Thanks again

Jerry Reedy's picture

Hi, Dani. Did I not read that you were in the process of making a complete retouching video that was to be completed soon? Is there such a gift? Is it completed? When will it be available? Did I just dream all of this?